CHARLOTTE - The anchor of the Carolina Panthers defense was set to answer a question without an easy answer, when the teammate who plays next to him and who shares an adjoining locker interrupted.
“Let me stop you right there, Luke,” linebacker Shaq Thompson said on his way back from the shower, “we’re going to have to ball the hell out.”
Luke is Panthers all-pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, one of the top defenders in all of football and key figure in Carolina’s system.
The question was one facing the Panthers on Sunday in their wild-card playoff game at the division-rival New Orleans Saints.
Just how can Carolina stifle the NFL’s most dangerous one-two punch?
Slowing the tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara – the first running back teammates in NFL history to each surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in a single season – will be the primary focus for the Panthers' defense.
“Oh, yeah,” Kuechly told USA TODAY Sports as his eyes widened and a grin flashed across his face as if embracing the challenge. “Those guys are good.”
Though careful not to give up any game plan secrets, Kuechly offered a rough blueprint of what Carolina needs to do to pull off the upset.
In his eyes, the battle boils down to one word: leverage.
“Our defense is built to keep guys on the edges and not let running backs get to the sideline and out-flank the defense,” Kuechly said. “That’s when problems come into play, when guys lose leverage on the formation.
“If you’ve got a guy that’s supposed to stay on the outside and set an edge, it makes everyone’s job easier. But they’re good at compromising leverage and pinning guys and getting guys on the edge. The game of football is all about leverage. We need to keep the edges set and keep guys inside the defense.”
What complicates matters for Carolina is that both Ingram (416 receiving yards) and Kamara (826) are excellent at catching passes.
The duo combined for 25 rushing and receiving touchdowns this season. Of those scores, seven were for 20 yards or more and included gains of 50 and 74 yards.
In the 11 games New Orleans won, the team averaged 151.3 rushing yards. In its five losses, that number dropped to 81.2.
“They’re putting both guys on the field at the same time now,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “So they can pretty much do anything with those running backs.”
The Saints defeated the Panthers in both of the regular-season meetings this season in Weeks 3 and 13. In those games, the Saints combined for 297 rushing yards.
Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks monitors stats from each game. The one that stung him most was a season-high 12 missed tackles during the latter loss.
“This week, we’ve got to make sure that we’re really, really good about setting our feet, and making solid tackles,” linebacker Thomas Davis said.
Though Ingram and Kamara receive ample recognition, New Orleans' powerful rushing attack starts up front.
In particular, the Saints love pounding the ball through the right side of their offensive line, behind guard Larry Warford and rookie tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
“They’re two really good players, and they work really well together,” Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei told USA TODAY Sports. “Really just being where you’re supposed to be. Being gap-sound, assignment-sound and trying to get off the ball and get a little bit of penetration on them, get off on different levels.”
This season, New Orleans ran 77 rushing plays behind Warford, which was fourth-most in the NFL behind the right guard. The Saints averaged 6.2 yards a carry on those plays, ranking second in the league for runs in that direction.
They also ran 58 times behind Ramczyk (sixth) for 5.3 yards a carry (third).
“They’re all really athletic,” Kuechly said of the Saints offensive line. “They’re big athletes and that’s perfect for their zone scheme. If we can get guys vertical in there and if we can get those running backs to slow their feet and make cuts early, instead of stretching and stretching and finding those holes, it will almost funnel them into the second level of our defense, where we’ll be waiting.”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.
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